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Northline Seafoods' new processing boat headed to Bristol Bay

The Hannah is a brand new boat, designed to operate in Bristol Bay.
Ben Blakey
Northline Seafoods
The Hannah is a brand new boat, designed to operate in Bristol Bay.

Bristol Bay seafood processors have new competition this season. Unlike the others, this one is a fully aquatic processor instead of a shoreside facility.

Normally in the region, fish are sold to a shoreside processing plant, which then processes on-site immediately. But Northline Seafoods, which is based out of Bellingham in Washington, is taking an unusual approach. Its new 400 foot barge will be able to buy fish from smaller vessels while remaining at sea.

The floating processor, dubbed the Hannah, is designed to freeze, ship, and store any salmon it hauls on board this summer.

“It’s a novel concept and new platform that we’re hoping brings a huge innovative change to the Bristol Bay salmon fishery,” said Ben Blakey, Northline’s chief executive officer.

Bristol Bay is home to the largest sockeye salmon run in the world and the fishery hasn’t changed much in decades. Processing companies have come and gone or merged under new names, but the facilities have largely been the same.

That makes the Hannah the first new major plant in the region in recent memory.

Blakey said the plan is to anchor in the west side of the region in the Nushagak District, near Dillingham, where the largest schools of fish have been harvested in the last decade.

He said Northline will buy fish from the east side of Bristol Bay if it is delivered to them though.

“We will be buying fish in all districts,” Blakey said. “And so in order to cover fleets that are fishing in other parts of Bristol Bay, we do rely on tenders to kind of buy their fish and bring them to the Hannah.”

Fishermen will be able to pull up alongside Hannah and unload directly to the processing boat. That’s a bit different from land-based counterparts, which use tenders, or larger vessels that store and haul fish for smaller boats. Bristol Bay limits the size of boats that can harvest near the rivers there to just 32 feet.

Northline’s model is also unique in that it won’t do any processing this summer. Instead, the vessel’s crew will freeze salmon whole and process through the winter as the company sells the fish.

“Thawing fish throughout the winter and just fileting it little by little – that allows us to do a better job with quality control,” the CEO said. “Instead of trying to behead, gut, and filet a million pounds a day, we can just deal with smaller quantities.”

According to a press release, the barge can hold 2.3 million pounds of fresh salmon per day and freeze up to a million pounds of fish at a time. The Hannah’s cold storage can hold over 10 million pounds of frozen salmon.

Blakey commended his land-based peers for being able to do everything all at once, but said this method is easier for his company.

“You take these large plants that are land based and they go from not operating at all to full capacity within 45 days and it’s a feat,” he said. “I mean it’s really challenging – we’re just trying to do it a little easier.”

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecasts about 39 million sockeye will return to the Bristol Bay region between its five districts this year.

The Hannah is expected to arrive in Dillingham between June 5 and 8.